By Markéta Šonková
Political populism is, yet again, on the rise. Be it Marine Le Pen in France, the recently defeated Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, our own president Zeman, or Brexit. Terms such as “post-truth” and “alternative facts” have been creeping into the political discourse and established themselves as powerful tools of the populists. So what is the situation like at the court of the king of political ramble, The Donald?
Yes, we would like to lie to you. But without you quite knowing.
In November 2016, Oxford Dictionaries awarded the term “post-truth” with their Word of the Year award. Although having been in existence for the past decade – and predated by its slightly less dramatic predecessors such as Stephen Colbert’s truthiness – the adjective, defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief,” was chosen for its spike in frequency in the context of the EU referendum in the UK and the presidential election in the U.S. Quite symptomatically, it soon became associated with a particular noun in a particular phrase: post-truth politics. Little did the dictionary editors know that their winner was soon to be accompanied by even bigger soundbite: alternative facts.
If you don’t tweet with us, you tweet against us
The media can be a politician’s best friend, but also their greatest enemy. More so in the age of instant news reporting. Now, there are several ways to survive in the ruthless world of neverending Tweets and blog updates. It is not exactly new to use media in one’s favor. But what if some of the media outlets have their own opinion and do not follow the preferred line of interpretation of what your administration does? Easy. Select the media outlets you like and ban those you do not like from your press conferences. Even better, make sure you tarnish their reputation before you do so. Caught in an outright lie? Not a problem. Have some of your staffers offer some alternative facts. You can even launch your own mainstream media accountability survey to instigate the media-bashing even more.
In Trump’s playground
If the paragraph above sounds like Orwell’s 1984 to you, or if you think this is so 20th century, then no, it is neither. This is what is going on behind the tastelessly refurbished walls of Trump’s Oval Office. In mid-February, Trump tweeted that the fake news media are not his enemy, but “the enemy of the American People,” while tagging The New York Times, NBC News, the ABC, CBS, and CNN in the Tweet. One week later, he targeted the New York Times and CNN once again, naming the outlets “FAKE NEWS” who are “a great danger to our country” for not telling the truth, ending the Tweet with his now signature exclamation “Sad!” The official presidential tarnishing has started.
The second Tweet also coincided with the struggling White House press secretary Sean Spicer banning reporters from the New York Times, CNN, the Los Angeles Times, The Hill, Politico, and BuzzFeed from attending a “gaggle.”¹ While some media critical of Trump were still allowed access – by which the White House more or less ensured they could not be accused of outright bias – the access was also granted to some hand-picked outlets, including the far-right Breitbart News that has not only been involved in publishing conspiracy theories and false news, but is also associated with Stephen Bannon, one of Trump’s top advisors, who, shortly before the ban took place, uttered that the situation for the media is only going to get worse.
Although previous administrations also held background briefings with smaller groups of reporters, it is has never been the case to cherry-pick media outlets to attend a “gaggle” that was held in place of what would otherwise be a televised daily briefing by the press secretary. Especially in the context of these briefings often serving as a platform for verification of the administration’s frequent contradictory statements. Such a step, quite obviously, sparked condemnation from key media figures, including the Fox News anchor Bret Baier.
When having eyes and ears becomes redundant
It is the contradictory statements that have become one of the trademarks of Trump’s presidency and the administration has struggled with information verification from the very beginning. It was during Sean Spicer’s first press remarks when he made several false and easily verifiable claims regarding Trump’s inauguration, including the crowd size. In reaction to the public’s and media’s discontent over such falsehoods, Trump’s counselor, Kellyanne Conway, issued an explanation – they simply offered alternative facts.
A week into his presidency, when Trump issued his January 27, 2017 Executive Order 13769, publicly known as the “travel and immigration ban,” supposedly aimed at protecting the U.S. citizens from potential terrorists coming from selected muslim countries, the administration hit the rocks. Instead of refuting the claims that the administration purposefully did not include those muslim countries where Trump has business interests – ethically questionable as such, given his current public service position – they pointed to some of the previous measures taken by the Obama administration. Moreover, the question of the country-selection for the ban in the light of Trump’s business interests raised some eyebrows even among the former staffers from – equally Republican – administration of G. W. Bush.
However, the public and media scrutiny did not seem to ease with the explanations that were offered. By then, the already well-known Kellyanne Conway became just as infamous as her statement in defense of the travel ban: she cited a non-existent “Bowling Green massacre” during an interview with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews. Although she tried to soften the blow by saying she misspoke one word and meant the “Bowling Green terrorists,” it turned out she quoted the fake attack to two other media outlets: Cosmopolitan magazine and TMZ. Donald Trump himself defended his travel ban with yet another fictional terrorist attack, this time in Sweden, probably based on a debunked Fox News report, confusing not only his fellow Americans, but equally the Swedes.
The more Pinocchios…
The steps the administration takes, sometimes labelled as the “war on the media,” met with opposition, namely in the Democratic or left-leaning camps. Several outlets launched fact checking sites, charts, plugins, tutorials, or published articles with fact-check corrections. The Washington Post also introduced a Twitter extension for some Internet browsers that directly comments on, rebuts, or explains the false or inaccurate statements, including those of current POTUS. The same outlet also uses Pinocchio icons to rate how much disinformation was included in a particular statement.
Others use their public space to do what they otherwise always do. Merriam-Webster dictionary often educate/trolls Trump and his administration on their incorrect use of words by making them trending on their social media accounts, posting corrections of Trump’s Twitter typos, making up explanations of the non-existent words he has used, or explaining his or his cabinet members’ outright semantical errors. Andy Borowitz, a comedian and an author for the New Yorker, also uses his social media platforms and satirical columns to mock Trump and his administration, for example by posting pictures of various kinds of explosions of supposed lie detectors during White House press briefings.
Truth be told, Trump’s Tweets and his misspellings are equally popular among other social media users and some triggered a use of new trending hashtags, such as #unpresidented², which also made it as Guardian’s word of the year. Additionally, the action-reaction dynamics of the social media regularly mirrors the newest jewels of the Trump show – from his flexible interpretation of the nepotism regulations, through the Obamacare repeal fail, to Melania’s residing in Trump Tower in NYC instead of the White House.
In the post factual age, the sacred place facts have held in Western liberal democracies are losing their ability to support consensus. This has been the case not only around Donald Trump, but has also been reflected in the Brexit Leave campaign, or in the campaigns of other European populists. The necessity to appear likeable on TV – leading to the importance of public appearance over crude facts – but also the instant reporting, social and social media bubbles, the fact that almost anyone can write news on the Internet, media ownership, marketability of information, disappointment with the elites and political establishment, and oversupply of often contradictory and politically-charged data all contribute to the political fragmentation and disillusionment of the 2000s and 2010s.
Moreover, data no longer necessarily equals facts and thus the overwhelmingness of information clutter can also lead to people abandoning the data overflow and concentrating on something that can be so easily manipulated: their emotions. This is where the marketplace for populist politicians, conspiracy websites, and groups with community knowledge, such as now-popular Infowars or the already mentioned Breitbart, arises. According to cognitive psychology, it seems that impressions, once made, become entrenched, and so is the information bias, more so if accompanied by politically motivated reasoning, as studies show. One such example is the fact that Trump’s voters believed the claims about the inauguration crowd being unprecedented and continued believing so even after being shown pictures comparing the crowd to Obama’s inauguration.
Post-factual politics in the risky age
The bottom line of all this is that the politicians know and use these mechanisms to their benefit – to appeal to voters, but also to deflect attention from possible internal issues of their administrations. Not only does it mean sinking deeper into post-factual politics, but it also presents security risks. Compulsive blabbing on Twitter might attract voters, but it can also reveal state secrets. So does blabbing to the media. Not too long ago our own president exposed classified information that the Czech Republic supposedly paid ransom for two kidnapped women. Thus, he more or less publicly set a price for a human life that any terrorist can now demand, knowing we are willing to pay.
It seems it is high time we asked the question where do we draw the line between populism and politics, more so if one is the president of a superpower, as Donald Trump currently is.
1 A non-televised briefing.
2 Trump intended to use “unprecedented”, but misspelled the word.